Occupied or self-occupied? Thoughts on America’s anti-corporate protest

Watching on TV this weekend, I saw a video clip of the 700 arrests made on the Brooklyn Bridge. In a quick five-second shot, I saw at least one Asian American face among the protestors.

Was it yours?

Prior to this weekend, the “Occupy Wall Street” protest had received scant treatment in much of the media, was covered as a curious afterthought in the street’s bible, the Wall Street Journal, and even ignored by NPR. To his credit, Lawrence O’Donnell on MSNBC was one of the first to lay into the NYPD for its brutal treatment of protestors last week. But it wasn’t until 700 people were arrested on the Brooklyn Bridge this past slow news weekend that more people began to notice.

Apparently, it takes a village of arrests to get traditional media to take note.

It’s even more noticeable when the arrests could be illegal.

Margaret Ratner Kunstler, an attorney and co-author of the just-released book Hell No: Your Right to Dissent in Twenty-First-Century America, told me in a phone interview: “The mass arrests of 700 marchers were utterly illegal and had to be an intelligence gathering operation. The police knew they couldn’t house them for any length of time. They had no system set up to put them through the courts. So it was really just to gain information about the demonstrators.”

She continued: “None of these people were told that they were in the wrong place. Had they been told, they would have moved out of the way. They weren’t told. They were just arrested.”

Kunstler said the police action was a way to send a message to all those who would take to the streets, that the protests could only go so far.

“Wall Street is afraid that people will express their dissatisfaction across the board and make them respond,” she told me. “We saw similar police activity in 2004 in New York where 400 people were netted and illegally held in custody for days; we saw how the protests in Pittsburgh at the G20 protests resulted in arrest after arrest; and we saw the Seattle World Trade Organization protests, where police violence was the order of the day. The biggest, greatest fear of the establishment is that people will take to the streets. The message we must send them is: Yes, we will.”

Will we?

The mainstream media seems to be focused on a stereotypical image of a protestor. Young, under- or unemployed. Mostly white, scruffy, alternative-music types. Or that the movement is seen as sincere, but amorphous and unfocused. Said the Wall Street Journal: “…if the protestors want something better they might try joining the tea party.”

Oh yeah, me and Michele Bachmann? Doubt it.

But there is a “there there” in that park near Wall Street. The organization is intended to be a ground-up horizontal, not vertical, one, making this protest a true people’s movement.

Demonstrations replicating in cities around the country are proof of that.

The organizing principle bringing people together? People’s anger and economic pain at the corporate structure.

The protestors’ demands are actually fairly plain-stated.

In fact, they read like what one might expect as a platform for some ideal and populist-oriented Democratic party.

This isn’t about some socialists looking to usurp capitalism. This is more about victims of capitalism who want a much fairer shake.

All you need to do is ask someone about the recent move by some banks to charge for debit card use and you have a potential protest candidate.

New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof suggested this week the protestors call for, among other things, a Financial Transaction Tax on Wall Street.

But details aren’t what give this movement its credibility.

Occupy Wall Street is about the venting of the masses.

They aren’t going to take it anymore.

Do you join in?

Asian Americans aren’t normally in the lead on this. Comfort breeds contentment.

But as I mentioned in a previous blog post on the latest Census, Asian Americans are not immune to the impacts of the tough economy.

Others may be too self-occupied to protest much of anything.

Yet, standing in solidarity is important now. This is about economic freedom for the rest of us. The corporations got their bailout. Now what about the rest of us? Are we too small to fail?

It’s hard not to see how some commentators have compared the growing movement to the Arab Spring.

But Wall Street’s Fall isn’t quite here yet.

That will take time. The longer the protestors stand their ground, the protest will grow. Already, traditional unions are joining in. As more observers feel their own economic pain and see little reassurance from traditional politicians (and the corporations behind them), things will change. The movement should pick up supporters from a much broader and diverse base of people, some who’ve never chanted or picked up a sign in their life.

And then this week’s illegal arrests will seem like nothing we’ve ever seen.

Image by AALDEF

Emil Guillermo is an independent journalist/commentator. Updates at Follow Emil on Twitter, and like his Facebook page.

The views expressed in his blog do not necessarily represent AALDEF’s views or policies.

Read Emil's full bio →